Clocking in years of behind-the-scenes labor and churning out mixtapes, albums and a slew of guest features, the formerly independent artist is ready to introduce his sound to a larger audience, and has already taken a major leap in his career with his latest endeavor: inking a deal with record label behemoth Def Jam.
Below, Jesse Boykins III chats with Billboard about his album Bartholomew and why signing with Def Jam was a good fit for him.
You’ve recently signed with Def Jam, what was that process like?
It’s kind of weird and pretty surreal. People have always thought there was a label behind me, but I’ve pretty much been independent since I could remember. When I started getting calls from major labels, I was in disbelief, because it’s not like it hasn’t happened before, but all the situations I was being presented with I didn’t find appealing.
I don’t like not being in control creatively, I don’t like not being able to be myself, because that’s what I fight for, period -- self-acknowledgment, self-love, progression and honesty, and sometimes I feel like those things aren’t reflected in the mainstream.
When the Def Jam situation came, it was moreso about who was bringing me to the table, if I trust these people, I know these people will understand my vision and not try to change my message and what I’m trying to do. I appreciate Def Jam for allowing me the opportunity to maintain and be who I am.
What goals are you trying to accomplish musically and how will this new deal with Def Jam help you attain those goals?
A bigger platform. My whole thing is to connect with people who are trying to shift and change things, and aren’t waiting for the shift. I’ve always felt like I was one of those people, I don’t want to just do one thing, I don't want to wait for the shift. Now I think we're at a point in society where originality and individualism are necessary, and there are people championing that, and I think that's important, because I've been doing that and I'm going to continue to do that.
You previously released Bartholomew last year but you’re releasing it again next week. Why are you re-releasing it?
Well, when I first released, I didn’t get a chance to put it up on anything besides SoundCloud, so that was kind of the main reason why it felt more like an official release to me. I feel like I prematurely leaked it myself, but a lot happened behind the scenes as far as the business side of things, getting new management, [and] just kind of reestablishing what I was trying to accomplish as an artist.
I kind of took a step back for a second, and I really feel like the album needs to be heard by the world. I worked really hard on this and it’s a really good album -- a lot of my friends are on it -- so I wanted to give it the light it deserved.
Your music is usually a blend of different sounds from soul to funk, electronic and reggae. How would you describe your sound to someone who isn’t familiar with your music? What would you classify your sound as?
I think about that and I get asked that question a lot and I don’t know if I ever answer it with what people want. [Laughs] I love what music does for people, as far as mental health and healing and togetherness -- people even find their companions through the music and I try to make that kind of music and be as honest as I can.
I don’t really have any motive when I’m making the music, other than expressing what it is I feel needs to be expressed, not only from me, but what some people need to hear and the easiest way you learn things in through melody. So that’s the kind of music I try to make. I make music that feels good, and is educational at the same time.
Who is Bartholomew based on? How’d you come up with the concept for the album?
He’s my alter ego. When I was 17 and I just moved to New York, I was in this whole new world and I didn’t understand at it all and I was trying to, I was trying to go out and people would ask me what my name was and I would tell them, Bartholomew. [Laughs.]
Bartholomew? Of all names.
As a joke, that’s kind of how it started. Over the years, every once in a while, someone would ask me what my name was, and I’d say Bartholomew. And one day I decided that I needed to challenge myself and write from a different mentality all while still being me.
I am Bartholomew now -- so what are the things that I need to find inside of myself, that I need to augment for this character to be different from my regular self? And throughout the process, I came up with these characteristics: 1. He grew up in Never Neverland with Peter Pan, 2. He secretly works for NASA but you can’t tell anybody, 3. He’s okay with being in the friend zone.
How have you evolved musically and personally from Love Apparatus to Bartholomew?
Musically, I feel like I was rebelling [on Love Apparatus]. Love Apparatus is one of my better bodies of work but a lot of times, I feel like when I was creating it, I made decisions based on me trying to fight my way out of a box I was put in and I didn’t want to be put in -- that’s what that album was, it was very rebellious for me.
Bartholomew taught me that I could be myself in any dimension, in any light, regardless of any perception or what people think; it’s about what I desire and what I’m trying to communicate. It taught me to be a little more truer and not so forceful. It’s way more organic, especially what I’m talking about I think is easier to digest for a larger audience than when I was writing ["Grayscale" from Love Apparatus]” It’s more light on this one.
What was your headspace like when you were recording Bartholomew?
I was going through a lot actually. Bartholomew was inspired by a year of my life, the year before I left New York, 2012. I moved to Los Angeles like late 2013 – I was on tour most of 2013 and 2014 – but a lot happened in 2012. I was transitioning, and I was still trying to put out Love Apparatus.
So I started writing the songs for Bartholomew and I was just in a mind frame where I was just trying to acknowledge the moment, and I didn’t realize it until I had the mental space and quiet that LA provides to realize the things that I might’ve missed.
The album features a slew of artists from Syd to Luke James, Noname, Melanie Fiona and the list goes on. How'd you connect with each of the artists for your album?
They’re all my friends. [Laughs.]
So you just sent out a mass text?
Yeah, pretty much. [Laughs.] No, but I worked with a lot of those people in the past and we’re all familiar with each other. Music moves in waves and people, even if you’ve never met them, they understand – there’s like this unspoken connection between your peers and so when I first moved here, everyone lived here or was moving here.
So just being out and bumping into people who were like, “I loved this album.” So I had no clue these people were fans, and I have no shame in saying I’m a fan of anyone. Every interaction was different; Dej Loaf, she was in interviews talking about how much she loved my music. She said she wants to work with JAY-Z, Kanye West, Missy Elliott and Jesse Boykins III, so I was like, "That’s crazy." She hit me up because she was in town. So I went to the studio just to meet her and she said, "Let’s do something, whatever you want to do let’s do it." I brought up “Nobody in Jupiter” -- it was already written – and I told her what my idea was and she went into the studio and did it.
Luke James, that’s my homie. We were just hanging out and I played him stuff like “LikeMinded” and he was like, “This is dope.” I wrote his verse right there. A lot of these situations were just me hanging out with my friends and sharing my ideas and them sharing theirs.
I remember Noname [was] in the studio and I played her “Into You,” and told her what the concept was, and I knew she would connect to it. She went off into a corner and hid behind the speakers, grabbed my notebook and wrote her verse in my notebook in like 20 mins – she recorded it in two takes.
Can you recall a special moment or a funny moment from any of the studio sessions?
One crazy thing that happened was Melanie Fiona came to the studio two days before she went into labor. She came to the studio at 11 p.m., nine months pregnant and recorded so many vocals that night. I started feeling bad like, "Melanie, I think we got it," but she would want to do the vocals over again.
She’s amazing to me, like a superhuman. A lot of things happened in that space that was pretty magical for me. Like, even when me, Syd and Willow were recording “Vegetables,” we were eating chicken wings. [Laughs.] Willow wanted chicken wings, so I ordered them, and we were all listening to “Vegetables” eating chicken wings like, “Is this wrong?”